Do You Know What Your Employees Need?

“Mechanic for a Day” Jeff Schmeck shares some lessons learned.

As everyone knows, competitive pressures are rising. Potential new buyers and longstanding customers alike are being wooed by alternative sources for equipment and parts. Many distributors are relying on the ability to provide timely service and quality maintenance as their chief weapon in the fight to retain customers’ business.

Unfortunately, the industry is troubled by a shortage of skilled technicians at a time when the delivery of service and maintenance is growing in importance. The problem created by the convergence of these two factors is widely acknowledged; complaints about the lack of competent service staff generate knowing nods from business leaders throughout the industry.

The constraints posed by the shortage of experienced technical personnel have made attention to the needs of current service staff all the more crucial. Business owners need to ask some important questions: Have I assessed what resources my mechanics require to do their jobs? Have I done what I can to ensure that they are able to perform at maximum efficiency? Are the promises that I make to customers realistic given the resources available to my service technicians?

Until You Walk a Mile in Another Man’s Moccasins, You Can’t Imagine the Smell
Jeff Schmeck served as director of a Texas supply chain company and can answer those questions far more confidently after serving as “Mechanic for a Day” in each of the company’s two main facilities. Although the event originated as part of a bargain struck with employees to encourage 100 percent participation in the company’s United Way drive, the experience provided him with both unexpected insights into what the mechanic’s job really entails and valuable information that has been used to improve internal processes.

Mechanics

Mechanics and their student break for lunch. (L-R) John Davis, Jeff Schmeck, Steve Christopherson, Chris Richters.

Schmeck admits that he had just two main concerns as he suited up for his first day as a mechanic: “I didn’t want to get hurt and I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” he says. Additionally, he wanted to keep it fun and informal. “I tried to stay away from business conversation, where I was the boss asking them how to make this a better company. We avoided those discussions.”

Instead, Schmeck learned by observing and doing. For their part, the mechanics made sure that he got the most out of his hands-on experience. He says, “They had the day well planned. They gave me a little dose of everything.” He was able to try his hand at both IC and electric equipment, and enjoyed the frantic pleasures of the battery-changing room. “They kept threatening to send me down to jobs in the area’s hide and meatpacking plants, which are notoriously unpleasant places to work. I just laughed and said, ‘I’m ready. Let’s go.’”

Fortunately for Schmeck, those threats were never carried out. To his credit, he succeeded in walking away from the experience with both his body and his dignity intact. In fact, he feels that he gained respect for being able to hold his own. More important, he took away a deeper appreciation of the physical and mental demands his mechanics face on a routine basis. “I had the impression that there was a slower pace, somewhat of an easygoing approach to the work. Well, that’s not true. These guys are going full out from the time they get in. I was really impressed with how hard they work.”

He also experienced the pressure of being responsible for the equipment that he worked on. “I did some brake work on a truck with one of the guys, and I was very aware that if I made a mistake there was the real potential for someone to get hurt. The mechanics work under that added pressure.”

Schmeck also had an opportunity to observe firsthand the frustrations of the job, particularly those stemming from a lack of coordination between the service and parts departments. “I think that’s a common problem throughout our industry. The mechanic goes to the parts department and the part he needs is not there. Customers are breathing down the mechanic’s neck to fix their lift trucks, and he doesn’t have the parts he needs. It’s a pretty tough position to put those guys in, really.”

forklift repair

Under the guidance of Ruben Olivares (left), Jeff Schmeck takes a look.

“You also find out if your shop is laid out well. If the mechanics are always asking for better lighting, management sometimes tends to approach the issue as ‘it’s good enough.’ Well, crawl underneath the fork truck. Can they really see? Is it hot? Is it cold? Do they have the tools they need to do the job? When you’re out there, you find that out pretty fast.”

Communication Is the Language of Leadership
His newfound understanding has prompted Schmeck to change his way of thinking about his mechanics’ job performance. “When a supervisor comes to me complaining about a mechanic, I now have a somewhat different perspective, and I try to direct the discussion toward looking at what we want to accomplish as a group.” One reflection of that new perspective has been a reinstitution of daily meetings involving the service and parts departments, to ensure a coordination of efforts. “It gives me a better awareness of what I have to do and what they need to do their job. There has to be some very good communication between the parts department and the mechanics. Things don’t just happen. A lot of people are communicating and making decisions to see that things happen right.”

Summing up the value of his stint as a mechanic, Schmeck says, “I think it was a great experience. I’ll do it again.” He adds, “I think every owner, if they haven’t already or if they haven’t done it in the last year or two, should spend a day in the parts department and spend a day with the mechanics. Build up some rapport with employees by showing them that the boss can get out there and do that work. It’s a good way to see some of the hurdles that the material handling mechanics have to overcome on a daily basis.”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association